Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised no one other than a health officer – not police, and not even users – will be able to check on data collected by the COVID-19 tracing app.
It comes as one million people downloaded COVIDSafe on Sunday night and doctors and nurses backed the technology and called on the public to use it to help save lives.
As at 10:30 PM 1 million Australians have now downloaded and registered for the #CovidSafeapp – please join us and help protect ourselves, our families, each other but above all else our nurses and doctors
— Greg Hunt (@GregHuntMP) April 26, 2020
The app, which launched on Sunday night, is based on a similar system in Singapore and was purpose-built to help experts pinpoint – and, eventually, prevent – virus outbreaks.
“It assists in the early alert and finding of people who may have been in contact with a person who is positive with a diagnosis,” federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said at the launch of the app in Canberra on Sunday.
The Morrison government hopes that if enough people sign on to have their movements tracked, Australia will be able to loosen restrictions on businesses and bring the economy back to life.
Tracking the virus – and nothing else?
The app works by recording the Bluetooth connections a phone makes with others.
If someone has been out of home and comes into contact with a person who later finds out they have COVID-19, authorities will be able to track them and let them know.
To be considered at risk, the person will have had to be within 1.5 metres of the confirmed patient – for about 15 minutes.
While monitoring movements sounds good in the context of fighting a pandemic, it’s no surprise that there are concerns over the government having access to information that shows where each Australian is moving and who they’re seeing.
Research from the Australia Institute showed that 45 per cent of Australians said they would use the mobile app.
Just under a third said they would not use it, and the other 27 per cent were unsure.
On Sunday, Labor’s Kristina Kenneally joined the group fearful about privacy, saying on ABC’s Insiders she would not download it until the rules about data use were enshrined in law.
But Labor health spokesman Chris Bowen said he would be “happy” to use the app, and added: “The only people I’ve seen say that they won’t download the app are Liberal and National MPs.”
As an interim measure until Parliament resumes, the app has been activated under the Biosecurity Act.
It’s expected to be legislated when politicians sit again in mid-May.
Mr Morrison told ABC radio only health authorities would have access to the data.
“It’s another tool we need to get back to normal as much as we can,” he said.
He said the contact numbers picked up by a person’s phone would be downloaded by a health officer only when someone gets the coronavirus.
Even then, that person would need to give permission for the data to be downloaded.
A health official will contact the person who has tested positive to the virus.
The patient will then be sent the PIN by text message – and they must give consent for their contact data to be uploaded into the data store.
Health officials will use that data in their tracing – and will be able to get in touch with others who might have been at risk because of their contact with the patient.
“No other government agency can use this information. No one in the commonwealth government at all, and in state authorities, only the health officer can use it,” Mr Morrison said.
“Not the police, not the welfare people, nowhere else. Just the health officer.”
Doctors back the app
Australian Nobel laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty was among the high-profile medical professionals to indicate he would sign up for the tracing technology.
“Anything that helps us wrestle COVID-19 to the ground is a plus. Any privacy any of us had pretty much disappeared when we started using mobile phones, searching on line, buying stuff from Amazon or whatever,” he tweeted on Sunday.
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone said the app was an important part of Australia’s response to the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 COVIDSafe app will assist in the contact tracing process, that laborious slow process which, together with the marvellous community response, has been implicitly responsible for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the community and flattening the curve,” Dr Bartone said.
What the government says about using the app
On downloading the app, people will be asked for their:
- Mobile phone number – so they can be contacted if needed for contact tracing;
- Name – so the relevant health officials can confirm they are speaking to the right person;
- Age range – so health officials can prioritise cases for contact tracing;
- Postcode – to make sure health officials from the correct state and territory are dealing with the case.
The app will record the following contact data:
- The encrypted user ID;
- Date and time of the contact;
- Bluetooth signal strength of other COVIDSafe users with which they come into contact;
- The information will be logged every two hours in a national data store;
- No location data will be collected at any time;
- Contact data stored on a device will deleted after 21 days.
The government says all data stored will be deleted once the pandemic has concluded.